A Productive Distribution Decision
by Dorothy Molstad
A first-time self-publisher faces many challenges and decisions. For Dennis Weidemann, founder of Mániténáhk Books, the decision to seek distribution was crucial, and the fact that he succeeded in getting a distributor—through IBPA’s Trade Distribution Program—convinced me to work with him on his book This Water Goes North.
Like most first-time author/publisher combos, Dennis thought long and hard about how he wanted his book to look and feel. By using a skilled pre-press person for the layout and design (lucky for him, his wife, Linda, qualified) as well as experienced copy editors and proofreaders, he produced a handsome volume. Because it looks professional and meets industry standards, the Trade Distribution selection committee was able to choose it. And that tells the industry it has been “vetted.”
As with all the early decisions in the book publishing process, Dennis had found pros and cons when he began exploring distribution options. “When it comes to book distribution, the small publisher has a tough life,” he told me later. “The bookstore chains won’t touch you without it, and neither will many libraries. Still, the decision to seek distribution isn’t a simple one.”
He’s right, of course. Distribution isn’t the cavalry coming over the hill, whisking every book off to Oprah-land. Distribution means only that bookstores can order a book. It doesn’t mean that they will.
The obvious advantage is that distribution opens up large potential markets. But there are disadvantages. The publisher’s own turf becomes smaller, and sales via the publisher’s Web site may decrease as national online retailers make the book available. Some markets become no-man’s-land—places where a distributor doesn’t do much marketing but also where direct marketing isn’t cost-effective for the publisher. In addition, taking advantage of distribution requires a relatively big and broad promotional campaign, significantly increasing the stakes for success or loss. Each publisher must decide what markets to try to reach and how best to reach them.
While Wearing Two Hats
When the publisher is also the author, things get even more complex. This is because the author and publisher have different goals.
A publisher’s decisions are narrowly defined by numbers. Too many losses and the publishing operation is gone. But authors often write because they think they have something worth sharing, and because they want as many books out there as possible. It can be tough for a self-publisher to separate the two perspectives. As Dennis put it: “The publisher side of us warns us not to do things that cost more money than they return, while the author side just wants another person kicking back in a chair with our book.”
One important criterion to weigh in the mix is something that many new publishers may not know—having distribution in place can provide access to other opportunities.
As a freelance book-marketing/PR consultant, I hear from many folks like Dennis looking for help to promote and sell their books. While I thought Dennis had an exceptional first book, with a topic and theme of broad interest, if he had not had distribution, I would not have accepted him as a client. Distribution was a key factor in my decision.
Because Dennis had distribution, I was able to present his book to the Midwest Booksellers Association as a candidate for inclusion in their Midwest Connections Program. This Water Goes North became a November 2008 selection and will be promoted to all the independent member stores for many months to come. Without distribution, the book would not have been considered.
Sometimes timing is everything. By presenting the book to MBA, we were able to secure an autographing slot for Dennis at its fall trade show. There he met bookstore owners from his target locations, spoke with the distributor’s reps handling his book, and set up a fall book tour.
Dennis has found that there are special advantages to using the IBPA Trade Distribution Program. When he’s speaking to industry people and mentions that the book has distribution in place, he reports, “they nod diligently in approval.” Then, when he tells them that the book was selected through the Trade Distribution Program, “there is a subtle, positive shift in their attitude. They don’t necessarily swing the door open and invite me in for lunch, but they leave it cracked and encourage me to tell them more. In this highly competitive business, that small opening is a big opportunity.”
“For the new small publisher, it can be a lonely world,” Dennis said recently. “We don’t know how things work in the business; our daily contacts are big corporations that make us feel small, and we aren’t invited to hang with John Grisham. As I was walking around the MBA show, looking at the big-publisher booths, I was feeling a bit overwhelmed—until I got to the IBPA booth. There, I felt relaxed, as if I was a member of a secret brotherhood. Organizations like IBPA, the Midwest Independent Publishers Association, and MBA provide guidance and a sense of belonging. They may not get us an invite to John’s house, but they introduce us to new friends who get what it is like to be us.”
Dorothy Molstad has more than 30 years of experience in the publishing industry, marketing a variety of novels, memoirs, and books on subjects from Teddy bears to tractors, knitting to rock and roll.
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